Breaking The Mold
A foundry seems an unlikely place for a technology revolution. The artisan task of heating metal into molten, then pouring it into molds to make the earliest swords and plowshares is a process that dates back to medieval times. Yet Danko Arlington Inc., a foundry on the west side of Baltimore, has embraced emerging 3D printing technology, more commonly known in the industry as additive manufacturing.
For president John Danko, additive manufacturing was the solution to a challenge that threatened his company after nearly 100 years in business. To train its workers, Danko has always relied on the apprenticeship system, which provides 10,000 hours of training over five years for such vital positions as mold patternmaking. But the system has gone so far in decline that mold patternmakers needed by Danko—without whom the foundry cannot make product castings—are in scare supply.
“In the 1990s, parents wanted their kids to go to college, not become trade apprentices,” he says. “To run our patternmaking shop, we also need skilled machinists who are becoming harder to find.” Danko says industrial patternmaking is in such decline there is no longer an active trade code for the skill.
He found that over the past decade, just as a new market for legacy military metal parts for the Defense Department helped his business recover from the transfer of foundry jobs overseas, his experienced mold and die makers were at retirement age with no replacements in sight. The solution: additive manufacturing.
“3D technology has a lot of advantages,” Danko says. “It’s very reliable and accurate as long as you have power and material. Once the setup is complete, you don’t need an operator, and because it can print what you can see, 3D printing easily handles weird surface angles and square corners. When you are making parts for jets and missiles, the product has to be absolutely precise.”
Danko says the ease of 3D precision has opened up new markets for legacy military parts and, on tight-margin products, improved profits over the old-school human mold- and die-making process. He now employs designers and programmers who have a different skill set. Traditional apprenticeships are history, replaced by a Stratasys 900MC 3D printer that handles Danko’s foundry patternmaking function.
This adaptation made by Danko Arlington is core to what is driving 3D printing and manufacturing growth—and may very well be a key driver in reinventing the global economy. Hod Lipson, a professor of engineering at Cornell and Columbia and co-author of the book Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, thinks the viability of 3D technology, for any company, comes down to a basic value proposition.
“Instead of looking for ways to use 3D printing to simply replace existing processes,” Lipson says, “the question companies need to ask is: ‘What new opportunities are opened by 3D printing?’”
For Danko Arlington, one of the opportunities was to never again find itself facing the extinction of critical knowledge required to satisfy its core business operations. Use of 3D technology has not only helped improve profits, but according to the company, it has been a great sales tool to land new accounts.
Industry experts agree: The question is not if 3D printing for prototypes and product manufacturing will profoundly change global markets—even leading to an uptick in the “reshoring” trend of manufacturing returning from overseas—but how fast the transition will happen.
“3D may not be as significant on manufacturing growth as the impact of the mobile Internet or robotics, but the stats bear out that there will be a much greater adoption of 3D beyond just creating prototypes,” says Gardner Carrick, vice president of Strategic Initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute. When asked about varying publicized projections of 500 percent growth rates worth up to $16 billion over the next five years for additive printing and manufacturing, Carrick says he “absolutely agrees” with those predictions. According to a recent report by the Manufacturers Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers, 67 percent of manufacturers are “adopting 3D printing in some way,” including to produce products; 25 percent of companies plan to adopt 3D printing; and only 9 percent of companies “do not plan to adopt 3D printing ever.”
On the reshoring proposition, Lipson says 3D printing may not have an impact on cheap labor manufacturing products, but the potential in higher-end markets is evident.
“There are many factors that play into offshoring and reshoring,” he says, “but the rapid innovation cycle afforded by this (3D) manufacturing process and the relatively high level of automation means there is less advantage to offshoring [than] with mass produced, labor-intensive manufacturing.”
Terry Wohlers, owner of Wohlers Associates and leading authority on additive manufacturing, echoes Lipson’s take on the evolving additive manufacturing markets.
“When I look around my office, file cabinets, wastepaper baskets, desks and mouse pads will continue to be made the way they have been in the foreseeable future,” he says. But he notes that higher margin consumer items, such as eyeglasses and dental products, are already evolving to the new additive manufacturing environment. In his annual 2015 look forward, Wohlers predicts the additive manufacturing industry will quadruple in the next five years and exceed $21 billion by 2020. This is up from his 2014 forecast of $10.8 billion by 2021.
As an example of emerging applications, Wohlers cites Belgian 3D printing provider Materialise, which just announced the commercialization of new 3D-printed eyeglass frames with Hoet Eyewear.
“The 3D-printed Hoet frames are cool looking and strong and just one example of the work Materialise is doing on several fronts, including medical and aerospace,” he notes. He says Materialise currently prints 2,000 parts every day for customers worldwide and is a mature company with 25 years of experience, 16 offices worldwide and 166 industrial grade machines capable of producing a wide range of products. According to Wohlers, 49 companies worldwide produced industrial grade machines in 2014.
“3D printing is changing the rules of manufacturing,” Wohlers adds.
“Metal sales are very hot in 3D printing right now, for example. [General Electric] Aviation has pushed the limits with the additive manufacture of metal fuel nozzles for CFM’s LEAP engine. GE has replaced its previous generation fuel nozzle, which consists of 20 different parts, with a 3D-printed version that is 25 percent lighter and lasts five times longer. Each one of the LEAP engines uses 19 fuel nozzles.”
According to General Electric’s website:
“GE is using laser-powered 3D printers, 3D ‘inking’ and ‘painting’ machines, and other advanced manufacturing tools to make parts and products that were thought impossible to produce and which sometimes verge on art. We see advanced manufacturing as the next chapter in the industrial revolution.” The company says it plans to make 100,000 parts using additive/3D printing by 2020, that it will invest $6 billion worldwide and is currently using more than 300 industrial grade additive printing machines in its operations.
Citing another aerospace additive manufacturing example, Wohlers says that European aircraft maker Airbus is now making metal cabin brackets using 3D printing.
“I’ve got one of the brackets on my desk,” says Wohlers. “It optimizes the strength to weight ratio so that it’s about 50 percent lighter but can with stand up to 14 tons of force.” He notes that such design improvements make aircraft more fuel-efficient.
One company both Lipson and Wohlers cite as a harbinger of manufacturing-to-come is Align Technology Inc., the San Jose, Calif., company that makes clear plastic Invisalign dental aligners, which are quite different from the traditional metal wire dental braces.
Wohlers, who recently spoke about Align at an Australian government meeting, says that Align Technology would not exist without 3D printing. The company combines the additive manufacturing process with CT scanning, proprietary software, 5-axix CNC milling, polishing and other methods of manufacturing.
Seeing the Invisalign manufacturing process in action is “impressive,” Wohlers says.
“Much of it involves a great deal of sophisticated automation, which has dramatically reduced manual labor, but has also created many jobs,” he notes. “The company employs 3,580 people. Consider also all of the people needed to design, produce, sell and service the machinery and systems that make everything tick at the company. And consider the many dental professionals that are impacted by the Invisalign product.”
Lipson believes the future of additive manufacturing is at the beginning.
“Many people wonder if 3D printing is hyped,” he says. “I think it is one of these technologies that truly is exponential—we’ll see more and more applications. Especially as the technology gets faster, cheaper and better, it will worm its way into almost every industry.”
Carrick with the Manufacturing Institute believes the U.S. is joining the ranks of early adopters. He notes that America has traditionally been a leader in R&D and that the country will benefit.
“There are some risks, of course. Manufacturers need to know the durability and strength of the products are reliable, so 3D manufacturing has to prove itself a better option than traditional manufacturing. When that happens, we’ll see wide adoption in U.S. markets.”
Wohlers is more cautious about the state of U.S additive manufacturing. He believes a certain amount of complacency has gripped the nation. Up until two to three years ago, domestic 3D printing machine manufacturers dominated the sector. In the 2000s, companies in Europe and elsewhere developed and commercialized competitive machines and materials. China has many makers in production or in development, Japan is experiencing a resurgence and Europe—especially Germany—has moved into metal additive manufacturing in a big way. He notes that government support has served as a stimulus in global markets.
“We can tell through our consulting and participation in conferences that governments are helping to drive the development and adoption of the technology in Europe and Asia,” Wohlers says. “3D printing is cutting across a wide range of sectors. The U.S. automotive industry validated the technology as early as the late 1980s. A few weeks ago, I attended a fashion show in New York that featured evening gowns, headwear, jewelry and footwear—all produced by additive manufacturing.” He says this, coupled with the investments and other activities around the world, demonstrates that 3D printing is finally getting the attention it deserves. Yet he says a lot of development and adoption must occur before it becomes a mainstream solution for production applications.
At Danko Arlington, John Danko is clearly intrigued by the possibility of converting his production line to 3D printing. He says it is ironic that he has a seven-smokestack production facility now reliant on a 3D design building across the street where his molds are now made. And he clearly feels a commitment to the traditional skilled workforce he employs.
“Our plant is very near where all the riots were related to the Freddie Gray incident in Baltimore,” he explains. “We employ ex-cons in our plant to give them a chance to become contributing members of society.” Danko also cites challenges with 3D technology. Among the considerations are the high startup costs of purchasing equipment; substantially higher material costs to make the molds; fragile printed designs that easily twist, are prone to cracking if mishandled and difficult to repair or modify; potential binder chemical reaction; potential thermal distortion during manufacturing; and hand labor to finish the molds. Danko also says there are no written standards on how materials should be deposited to ensure quality control for his defense clients.
But even with these challenges, he says Danko Arlington will be looking to invest in 3D additive production equipment within the next decade. He thinks the technology could just rescue the entire foundry sector in the U.S.
“There are only about 2,000 foundries left in this country,” says Danko. “The majority of our business moved to overseas markets for cheaper labor. But I think global trade is going to be different in the near future. Manufacturers will be looking at exchanging electronic information in production facilities that look more like office buildings than smokestack factories.”